THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Notes on Gay Softcore Camp

When Gay Sex Loses its Politics

by Andrew Deck

Illustration by Julie Benbassat

published September 16, 2016


The first ‘gay-themed’ feature-length film I watched was Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds. 

Like many closeted eighth graders, I had turned to YouTube coming-out confessionals for affirmation. But what started as watching Tyler Oakley pour his heart out soon spiraled into a thorough education in bad gay film. “Recommended videos” exposed me to series of student short films about locker room romances and sleepover sexual tensions. Mixed in was a sprinkling of montage videos featuring Queer as Folk fan-favorite couples (e.g. “Brain & Michael: Bad Romance,” “Stuart & Nathan: Illuminated”). This YouTube rabbit hole culminated with Sloppy Seconds, my unfortunate introduction to gay softcore camp.

Sloppy Seconds (2006) is not so different from the first Eating Out (2004). Both plots can be boiled down to the question, “Is he gay?” In Sloppy Seconds, Kyle, played by American Idol ninth runner-up Jim Verraros, attends an art class with his friend Tiffani von der Sloot. They are both attracted to Troy, the class’s nude male model, and concoct an ill-advised plan to expose his sexuality. Kyle pretends to undergo conversion therapy and begins dating Tiffani so he can suggest a threesome to Troy. Troy discovers their deceit, sleeps with Kyle’s ex-boyfriend, and then announces he is bisexual to the cast of characters. He is met with a resounding, “There’s no such thing!” The film concludes with the “ex-gay” minister of Kyle’s conversion camp having sex in a Porta Potty, only to be caught by his mother, whom he then ejaculates on. It’s farce, but only if you replace the trope of mistaken identities with illegible sexualities. Take it as the Midsummer Night’s Dream of cruising, jockstraps, and straight-gone-gay fantasies. 

It is all too easy to rip apart a film that was never meant to be taken seriously. Eating Out and its companion films Sloppy Seconds, All You Can Eat, Drama Camp, and The Open Weekend are firmly rooted in camp; they’re frivolous, hyperbolic, kitschy, and unashamed of it all. The film is an unnatural depiction of gay life, and of life in general. Its characters are caricatures, its production value is B-film quality, and its driving storyline is on par with middle school gossip. It never wants its audience to examine it with a critical eye, and in fact asks that you don’t. It’s all in good fun.   

While queer cinema that finds recognition among mainstream critics tends to lean into heavy drama and serious romance—think Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) or Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (2014)—Eating Out keeps it light. There is no moment of anguish over discovering the t-shirt of a long-lost lover and no one races to the train station for a final goodbye. Rather, there are depictions of unromantic, uncomplicated sex between characters hardly developed beyond their most superficial sexual interests. For example, there is no real investment in the character arc of Troy, the nude model, other than to set up the climactic revelation that he would consider having sex with our ‘twink’ protagonist, Kyle. Unlike the historical subset of mainstream gay film, such as Philadelphia (1993), Milk (2008) and Pride (2014), there is no explicit interest in queer civil rights figures. Eating Out is nowhere near a biopic. And as a franchise focused entirely on the lives of cisgender gay white men, these films don’t reach into the areas of queer cinema that explore the gender binary or the experiences of queer people of color. 

Rather, Eating Out and its kin stand apart in an entirely different subsection of films featuring gay male protagonists, films that share the franchise’s formula for sexy, campy comedy. You’ll find them in full force under Netflix’s “Gay & Lesbian” section. There is Latter Days (2003), in which a Mormon missionary falls in love with his promiscuous gay neighbor. Is It Just Me? (2010) features a lonely writer who meets the perfect hunk online but realizes he used a fake profile. Longhorns (2011) has this official description: “A group of Texas frat boys go to a cabin in the woods and ride each other.” Going Down in La-La Land (2011) follows an aspiring film actor who comes to Hollywood but ends up a gay porn superstar. And Another Gay Movie (2006)—a Scary Movie-like spoof of the previously listed films—and its 2008 follow-up, Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild!, only solidify the genre’s existence. 

Beginning in the early 2000s, LGBT film distributors churned out this genre of gay softcore camp, filled with and fueled by unromantic gay male sex. The framework for these films appears to have been intermittent sex scenes interspersed with comic relief, as filmmakers tried to walk the fine line between infusing their films with hypersexuality and assuring the audience that this is not porn, it’s comedy. In the tradition of softcore before it, most nudity happens off camera, but the rare full-frontal shot keeps the audience coming back. Every installation of the Eating Out franchise and many other films in the genre feature shirtless men on their posters, and the innuendo-filled titles only affirm what is already obvious. In all its campy glory, gay softcore films have come to occupy a notable place in the world of queer cinema. 

 

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In her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” perhaps the definitive work on the subject, Susan Sontag argues that camp’s artifice and exaggeration is inevitably unnatural. As she puts it, “nothing in nature can be campy” as camp connotes a manmade artificiality. This unnaturalness is certainly felt in the fictional universes within gay softcore camp, in which everyone is white, everyone is having sex without implications, and the struggles of being queer in heteronormative society are rendered unimportant. Put simply, the realities of living as a gay man do not motivate these films. Sontag further contends that camp is depoliticized. Camp’s preoccupation with aesthetics, in her view, slights any content and breeds a sensibility that is “disengaged—or at least apolitical.” In other words, the superficiality of camp discourages a deeper examination of its content and precludes a piece of camp from self-awareness, from acknowledging the power dynamics and political context it may play into. This absence of self-awareness is, for Sontag, camp’s definitive quality. 

That's not to say that viewers of these films are unable to see the queer political issues they exhibit. For one, the genre of gay softcore camp reproduces the trope of the hypersexualized white gay male. Every scene in these films is motivated by the sexual desires of men, and every named character in the Eating Out franchise is white. The only female characters in the films are sidekicks and self-described ‘fag hags,’ whose desires and interests are configured in relation to their gay male friends. The narrative purpose of these ‘wing women’ is solely to help their gay guy friends get off. Often left sexually unfulfilled by the closing credits, the representation of Tiffani von der Sloot and company advances a construction of sexuality that prioritizes male desire. Alongside the ‘fag hags’ you’ll find the ‘twink’protagonist, who fawns after gay men fitting neatly into the chiseled, masculine, white-guy mold: the more abs the better; jock vibes are a must; midwestern farm boy is always a plus.  

Sex positivism also drives this genre. Gay softcore camp advocates in a passive way for unabashed gay male sexuality in everyday life. It depicts gay male sex free of guilt or shame. Each film—from Sloppy Seconds all the way to Longhorn—makes no secret that it thinks sex is fun and that the sex lives of gay men should be unconstrained. So in the most absurd sense, these films are about gay sexual liberation. That may seem like overreaching, but it’s in large part because the language of ‘liberation’ is inextricably political and Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds doesn’t feel political. As Sontag argues, the medium of storytelling ensures it does not. But regardless of its superficial depiction, gay male sex positivity is built into these narratives. 

 

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At one point, advocating for sex positivity was a tenet of the mainstream gay political movement. Like these films, that movement was dominated by the interests of white gay men—its most visible proponents. But for this subset of gay activism, sexual liberation was about destigmatizing gay sexuality, shedding self-hate, and emancipating oneself from sexual repression. It was also about having a lot of sex, but in the discourse of this political movement it was often taken as more than that. The bath houses that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century in San Francisco’s Castro and New York’s Village, where gay men went to explore their sexuality, epitomize this ideology. These spaces, which embraced gay sex positivity, were seen by the community as rejecting not only normative heterosexuality but monogamy and the stigmatization of many sexual practices. 

In the 1980s, as the mass media and scientific community labeled ‘gay promiscuity’ a dangerous threat to public health—with diseased blood configured as a byproduct of unconstrained gay sexuality—sex positivity in the gay political movement was turned against itself. Right-wing politicians used the practice of sex positivity among gay men as ‘proof’ of wrongdoing and the ‘source’ of AIDS. At times this rhetoric made its way into internal debates on gay sexual liberation. LGBT activists like Larry Kramer wrote scathing critiques of uninhibited gay sex. Bath houses that had once been seen as symbols of gay liberation were pointed to as shameful origins of infectious disease. Vocally supporting gay sex positivity in the late ’80s and early ’90s was not only mired in social stigmatization, but in the widespread conception that gay sex was harmful. Saying gay men should have as much sex as they want was a bold statement in a politicized conversation. 

By 2006, the conversation had changed. It would be wrong to diminish the continuing work of AIDS activists in the queer community, whether fighting against HIV criminalization laws and blood donation bans or fighting for better access to healthcare and treatment. But for the white gay men who survived the AIDS crisis, civil equality and same-sex marriage came into focus as a central political goal in the new millennium. And the social justice issues facing trans people and queer people of color finally came into a blurred focus within mainstream activism, which had for years ignored those voices and lives. Sex positivity did not leave the gay community. Cruising did not end. The Folsom Street fair is still held every year. Grindr exists. And the shaming of gay sexuality by conservative leaders is, unfortunately, far from outdated. But the mainstream dialogue on gay politics shifted away from AIDS culpability, and saying gay sex is good shed some of its indexical weight. 

 

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Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds says gay sex is good frequently and energetically, and it first said it in 2006, which makes it a film uniquely positioned for political analysis. Released as part of the rise of gay softcore camp and in the midst of a shifting queer political landscape, Sloppy Seconds, and films like it, pull at a gay generational divide. As camp, they do so without wanting to or trying. In 1986, for the gay men who lived through the emergence of AIDS and saw gay sex positivism as a conversation central to their political future, “It’s all in good fun” wouldn’t have cut it. Released in 2004, the first Eating Out spawned five sequels and a genre. It was only able to do so because it came at a time when, within the queer community, an uncritical portrayal of gay sex positivity wasn’t seen as politically charged.

While gay softcore camp plays into a history of sex positivism in the gay community, it does so without self-awareness. And if viewers try to see through the shallowness of camp and read a political message into these films, they will often come up dry. That’s because while gay softcore camp is an odd product of the gay political movement and its mutable trajectory, it cannot be its continuation. As we look to the future of the queer political movement, and a conversation reorienting towards intersectionality and increasingly nuanced understandings of oppression, a genre defined by the sex lives of white gay men is not an answer to our call. While these films, collectively, can be read as a document of gay sexual liberation, they are not liberatory.

 

ANDREW DECK B’17 should stop watching bad films on Netflix’s “Gay & Lesbian” section.